FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!
We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!
“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”
What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”
What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.
As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!
Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!
And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.
There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.
Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!
Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!
But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.
There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!
I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!
The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!